Religion, as certain members of the media never fail to remind us at this time of year, seems to be on the decline, and for disgruntled secularists, the end cannot come quickly enough. But the death of God, at least in the hearts of most human beings, is a Western illusion. New demographic projections suggest that it’s non-believers who are more likely to languish while the religious inherit the earth.

Writing in the peer-reviewed journal Demographic Research just before Easter, Conrad Hackett, of the Pew Research Centre, and others acknowledge that the number of people who say they are atheists or agnostics or “nothing in particular” is growing in regions such as North America and Europe. But they say the assumption that the whole world will go the same way ignores the impact of demographics. Putting it bluntly, religious people have more kids.

For a start, religious women are younger – by six years at median age (28 vs 34). For the period 2010 and 2015 their average fertility (total fertility rate or TFR) is 2.59 children per woman, compared with 1.65 children per woman among the religiously unaffiliated, which is “nearly a full child less”. High fertility (“more than two”) also lends momentum to population growth.

On this basis, and taking into account different religions, the age structure of populations and patterns of religious switching (disaffiliation or the reverse) the researchers project the size of the religious and non-religious population of the world in 2050.

They find that although the number of non-religious people will continue to increase, that growth will be outpaced by faster overall population growth driven disproportionately by religious women. In their main scenario, the researchers foresee a decline of the religiously unaffiliated share of the population from 16.4 percent in 2010 to 13.2 percent in 2050. Even in a scenario weighted in favour of disaffiliation, this share would be smaller than now at 14.3 percent.

These figures show that the world overwhelmingly leans towards religion, and indicate that it will continue to do so. Even in North America and Europe, if the projections are anywhere near the truth, three out of four people will claim religious affiliation in 2050. In the Middle east, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa between 97 percent and 100 percent of people will remain affiliated.

No room for complacency

However, there is no room for complacency among religious people. While the outlook is gloomy for atheists, it is not particularly bright for Christians. Another Pew report shows that they will barely hold their numerical dominance over a more rapidly increasing Muslim population. Indeed, if it weren’t for the youth and vigour of Christians in sub-Saharan Africa, Christians globally would lose their edge. Four out of every 10 Christians in the world will live in that region by 2010.

In the United States, for example, Christians will decline from more than three-quarters of the population to two-thirds as younger people increasingly give up the faith, or at least nominal religious identity, of their parents. The same is true of many European countries. Australia and the United Kingdom are among seven Christian majority countries in which Christians will be less than half of the population by 2050. In New Zealand, France and the Netherlands the unaffiliated will be the largest group.

In the Asia-Pacific region, however, the unaffiliated population will decline along with a general decrease in the world’s share of population owing to advanced age and low fertility. This region includes China, which currently has 62 percent (700 million people) of the world’s unaffiliated population, but also India, where both the Hindu and Muslim populations are younger and more fertile.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s population will grow more, and faster, than any other region’s. Despite a near doubling of the unaffiliated (from 26 million to 50 million) the religious population will increase more.

How it matters

What effects would these changes have on countries, regions and the world at large? Hackett and colleagues point out that changes in religious identity can have important consequences for family formation (religious people are more likely to marry and stay married), educational attainment, civic engagement (church attendance is a plus for family stability) and health outcomes (some research links going to church with greater longevity and better health).

“At the societal level,” the researchers say, “changes in the unaffiliated share of population could influence political elections as well as how science and religion are taught.” (Or perhaps whether religion can be taught at all.) Communication between increasingly secularised but less fertile Europe and north America on the one hand, and highly affiliated and rapidly growing African and Middle-Eastern regions on the other, could become more difficult and heighten geopolitical tensions.

Of course, none of this is written in stone. What would happen, for example, if China became a democracy with true religious freedom? Even under heavy controls, and often persecution, tens of millions of Chinese have become Christians, so there is potential there to boost religious affiliation enormously.

What difference would further development of emerging economies make? Demographers tend to assume that as people grow wealthier they will give up religion. But Hackett and colleagues say that should not be taken for granted: “There is currently no precedent for this sequence in a Muslim-majority country. In Hindu-majority India, religious affiliation remains almost universal even as the country is experiencing major social changes.” China also bucks the assumed trend.

One of the great unknowns is whether Christians in Europe and the Anglo-American world will get off their feather beds and become counter-cultural. Today, that would involve a greater commitment to marriage and children, without which they will slowly but surely be eclipsed. Beyond 2050, the projections look even less favourable.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet